As an educator, I have taken a keen interest in understanding how the brain develops in young people.
Obviously, with the intent of enhancing that development in positive ways, my goal has been to understand how best to engage and support appropriate development, much of which I might add, is very natural.
At my age, and having had to deal with the significant aging issues of my parents, I have become interested in the cognitive functions of the elderly, the unwinding of all the development that took place in youth.
While much of how the brain works remains a mystery, current technology and the sharing of information through scholarly research posted on the internet has provided much more insight into brain processes in the last couple of decades.
The next step is what to do with those insights to reduce the negative impacts of neural decline.
There is much information available on Alzheimer’s, and the fear attached to it has helped it become an umbrella term used for any decline in mental functioning.
But virtually every aging person will experience some change in processing efficiency, while only a small portion (13 per cent) will actually exhibit the more extreme levels of loss associated with Alzheimer’s.
When we are young, the lack of experience we have means that many of our neurons are unused. With each day’s activities and challenges, new pathways are established, more neurons are engaged and a lot of learning takes place.
That will continue throughout our lives, although it is easiest when we are young. It’s inaccurate to say you can’t ‘teach an old dog new tricks,’ but it is not unreasonable to assume that it takes longer for an old dog to learn new tricks.
The years of fastest intellectual processing are from about 12-20 years of age.
After that, the ability of the brain to take in and utilize new information begins a slow, but steady downhill decline, sped up when an individual gets into a routine (or rut), where little new intellectual learning takes place.
There are plenty of examples of young adults whose intellectual capabilities fail to grow beyond their schooling years and elderly individuals whose intellectual growth continues without limitation.
Genetics and lifestyle both play enormous roles in mental functioning. We are predisposed, by virtue of the genetics of our family, to certain methods of learning and physical attributes that can lead to functioning losses.
But we can also reduce the impact of any genetic issues through a lifestyle that promotes good physical health and active mental development.
In essence, we can make the most of the genetic hand we’re dealt.
What is very important to understand about intellectual functioning is that declines begin long before specific symptoms turn up – decades before. It is not a good idea to count on being able to change your lifestyle at age 65 and think you’ll make a big difference. You might make a small difference, but you’re already playing catch-up to decades of decline.
My career in education certainly leaves me with a certain bias, but the science surrounding brain research in relation to future intellectual functioning is reinforcing what I heard many of my own teachers say to me over the years – learning something new every day will make you happier and healthier and give you more choices.
That’s as true at any age, but, quite frankly, might be the most important at 30, 40 and 50, when the downhill slope can be most levelled through lifestyle choices.
Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare